Covering events from January - December 2004

Scores of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, were released. Dozens of people were sentenced to lengthy prison terms following unfair trials on "terrorism"-related charges. Torture and ill-treatment continued to be reported. Hundreds of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, remained in prison. Many had been held for more than a decade. Solitary confinement and denial of medical care in prisons continued to be reported despite recommendations for improvements in conditions in prisons and detention centres made by a government-appointed commission of inquiry in early 2003. Freedom of expression and association continued to be severely restricted.


On 24 October, Zine El 'Abidine Ben 'Ali was elected President for the fourth consecutive time. According to official figures, he received nearly 95 per cent of votes cast. His party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique, RCD), won 152 of the 189 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Amendments to the electoral code introduced in 2003 restricted the use of the media to national public channels, which were dominated by the government, thus severely limiting the electoral campaign of the opposition. There were reports that harassment and intimidation of political opponents and activists as well as known critics of the government intensified in the run-up to the elections. Among those targeted were Hamma Hammami, head of the unauthorized Tunisian Workers' Communist Party (Parti communiste des ouvriers tunisiens, PCOT), who was physically assaulted by men believed to be plain-clothes police officers, and Moncef Marzouki, President of the unauthorized Republican Congress (Congrès pour la République), who was stopped at the airport and interrogated by police.

In January new laws were introduced to establish stricter controls on migrants. Tighter controls of Tunisia's territorial waters and of ships that could be used to carry migrants to Europe illegally were established. Changes to travel documents and measures to deal with criminal networks suspected of involvement in people trafficking were also introduced. Arrests of hundreds of migrants being trafficked to Europe were reported during the year. Scores of migrants also reportedly died during attempts to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

Releases of political prisoners

At least 79 political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, were conditionally released in November. Most had been imprisoned for over a decade because they were members or sympathizers of the unauthorized Islamist movement, Ennahda (Renaissance). They were arrested, tortured and imprisoned after grossly unfair trials in the early 1990s. Those released were predominantly prisoners whose sentences would shortly have been completed.

Violence against women

A law on manners and sexual harassment was promulgated in August, amending Article 226 of the Penal Code. The law extends the definition of sexual harassment to words, gestures or actions that undermine a person's dignity and feelings. It increases penalties for sexual harassment at work or in public places to one year in prison and a fine of 3,000 dinar (around US$ 2,430). This penalty is doubled if the victim is a child or a mentally or physically vulnerable individual. Women's rights activists welcomed the law but expressed concern that it linked sexual harassment to safeguarding manners, lacked an adequate definition of harassment and did not contain adequate provisions for investigating allegations.

'War on terror': unfair trials and other violations

At least 15 people were charged under the new "anti-terrorism" law introduced in December 2003. Concerns persisted about the law, which allows for the extension of pre-trial detention for an undefined period and lacks safeguards in relation to people facing extradition to countries where they could face serious human rights violations.

  • Adil Rahali, aged 27, was deported from Ireland in April after his application for asylum was refused. He was arrested on arrival in Tunisia and taken to the State Security Department of the Ministry of the Interior where he was held in secret detention for several days and reportedly tortured. Adil Rahali, who had worked in Europe for more than a decade, was charged under the 2003 "anti-terrorism" law with belonging to a "terrorist" organization operating abroad. The organization was not named and no details were provided about the exact nature of its activities. His lawyer filed a complaint about the allegation of torture, but no investigation was known to have been initiated by the end of the year. Adil Rahali was scheduled to be tried in February 2005.

Dozens of people were sentenced to lengthy prison terms following unfair trials on "terrorism"-related charges. In the cases highlighted below, the defendants were not charged under the 2003 "anti-terrorism" law because their arrests predated the law's introduction.

  • In April, seven young men were convicted, following an unfair trial, of membership of a "terrorist" organization, possessing or manufacturing explosives, theft, using banned websites and holding unauthorized meetings. Two others were convicted in absentia. They were among dozens of people arrested in Zarzis, southern Tunisia, in February 2003, most of whom had been released the same month.

The trial failed to respect international fair trial standards. According to defence lawyers, most arrest dates in police reports were falsified, and in one case the place of arrest was falsified. There were no investigations into allegations that the defendants were beaten, suspended from the ceiling and threatened with rape. The convictions rested almost entirely on confessions extracted under duress. The defendants denied all charges brought against them in court.

In July the Tunis Appeal Court reduced the sentences of six of them from 19 years and three months to 13 years' imprisonment. Their appeal was rejected by the Court of Cassation in December. Another defendant, who was a minor at the time of the arrest, had his sentence reduced to 24 months in prison.

  • In June, 13 students were sentenced, following an unfair trial, to prison terms of between four years and 16 years and three months plus up to 10 years' administrative control; one student was tried in absentia. The students, most of whom were originally from Ariana, were convicted of "terrorism"-related charges. Arrested on 14 and 15 February 2003, all stated in court that their statements had been extracted under torture while held by the State Security Department of the Ministry of the Interior. The prosecution case rested almost exclusively on the confessions. No investigation was carried out into the allegations of torture. Their appeal was postponed until January 2005.

Freedom of expression

Human rights' and journalists' organizations accused the authorities of stifling press freedom and seeking even tighter government control of the press, contrary to assurances given by the authorities that measures would be introduced to safeguard freedom of expression. Internet access was routinely blocked and e-mails addressed to certain e-mail accounts never reached the intended recipient.

  • In January the Ministry of the Interior again refused to give authorization for a printed version of the weekly on-line magazine Kalima. Under Tunisian law, those seeking to issue a printed publication are required to deposit a declaration and should automatically receive a receipt from the Ministry of the Interior. Printers cannot legally print a publication without this receipt. The authorities gave no reason for withholding the receipt for Kalima.

In August the government promulgated a law on data protection which the authorities said was intended to protect personal privacy. However, its apparent effect was to prevent journalists, writers and non-governmental organizations from using personal data for publication without authorization while imposing no restrictions on the personal data that can be held and used by the authorities. The law also established a national commission with ultimate authority over data protection issues. The commission's annual reports are submitted to the President and not made public.

Human rights activists and organizations

The authorities gave no reason for withholding recognition from several human rights organizations that had been asking to be legalized for several years. Among these organizations were the International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners, the Association to Combat Torture in Tunisia, the National Council for Liberties, and the Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary. Members of such non-governmental organizations reported harassment and intimidation by the police.

  • In June the founders of the Association to Combat Torture in Tunisia were beaten by police as they attempted to register the organization. The authorities had repeatedly refused to register the organization without giving a reason. Three leading members – Radhia Nasraoui, Ali Ben Salem and Ridha Barakati – went to the office of the Governor of Tunis District and insisted on meeting the official in charge. After a six-hour sit-in, the three were assaulted by men believed to be plain-clothes police officers after they were forcibly removed from the office.

Torture and ill-treatment in prison

Overcrowding in prisons and discriminatory treatment of political prisoners continued to be reported. There was continuing concern about lack of medical care, poor hygiene, torture and ill-treatment in prisons.

  • Dozens of political prisoners continued to be held in prolonged solitary confinement in tiny cells. Some had been held in solitary confinement for more than a decade, in violation of both Tunisian law and international standards. Prisoners often staged prolonged hunger strikes to protest against their conditions of detention.
  • In June political prisoner Nabil El-Ouaer, held in Borj Er-Roumi prison in Tunis, alleged that he was beaten and placed in a punishment cell and that four criminal prisoners were let into his cell late at night in order to sexually assault and rape him. After the assault, he was transferred to Rabta Hospital in Tunis without explanation. He was transferred between three prisons in a period of one month, apparently in an attempt by the authorities to keep the incident quiet. He was reported to be psychologically distressed as a result of the assault. Despite several requests by his lawyer for an independent criminal inquiry into the assault, no investigation was carried out. In November, he was conditionally released from prison together with scores of other political prisoners. Nabil El-Ouaer had been imprisoned since 1992 following an unfair trial before a military tribunal.

Death in custody

  • Badreddine Reguii, aged 29, died in Bouchoucha prison in Tunis on 8 February. Police informed the family that he had committed suicide. The family called for a further investigation as the original investigation failed to establish the cause of extensive bruising on his body and a deep wound on his back.

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